The autumn has threatened, at times, to take over recently. The Mistral blew quite cold for a while but then retreated. After a bout of drizzly rain, calm weather and the sun has returned. It is glorious now – sunny and a perfect temperature. I still swim every morning but it is a stretch. The pool temperature had fallen to sixteen degrees at one point but is hovering close to eighteen at the moment. A few laps every morning is refreshing and certainly gets the day moving.
We took a week recently to do a road trip. This took in Arles, Perpignan, Port de la Selva, Andorra, Carcassonne, Montpellier, Nimes, Avignon and Toulon. No disappointments there. We did a bit of a motorway dash to Perpignan but stopped off in Arles on the way there. That was a lovely place, one time home of Vincent van Gogh, it has a wonderful old town and impressive remains of a Roman amphitheatre. What we missed here was an opportunity to have a visit to the Camargue. A bit of a wilderness area with wild horse and flocks of flamingos. Another time, I hope.
While we stayed in Perpignan we took the opportunity to drive to Spain for lunch. The coast road was lovely all the way to Port de la Selva. Jackie had holidayed there as a kid when it was quite a different place. It was Puerto de la Selva too back then. That was still in the Franco era in Spain when the Catalan language was effectively banned. Hence the difference between the port and puerto. It’s often surprising to see the area of Catalan that extends from France to Spain but also encompasses Andorra as well. The capital there was previously Andorra la Vieja. There was a time in France when there was less of a tolerance to regional languages but the street signs in many towns in this area are also in Provençal these days.
From Perpignan we drove to Carcassonne via Andorra. The capital of Andorra, Andorra la Vella, was not particularly characterful but the drive west from Perpignan through the Pyrenees was lovely and fortunately we were blessed with lovely weather. Perpignan did have an old town but overall, the city was not quite as nice as some of the other old towns in the other cities we have visited in France. The visit to Andorra was the chance for me to visit the only European microstate I hadn’t seen before. Previous travels had taken in Lichtenstein, Monaco, Vatican City and San Marino. Andorra is basically an oversized ski resort but it was wonderfully scenic in the absence of snow.
Carcassonne has a lovely old fort but it has a bit of a Disneyland feel to it as it has no real function except to cater to tourists. The town of Carcassonne itself was very nice despite bits of it having seen better days. With enormous amounts of time you can take a trip down the canals that traverse it. That again might be something for another time.
We took a long drive to Montpellier. We followed back roads through some lovely wooded country with breaks to have brie and bread snacks from the back of the car. There were some lovely old villages on the way too. But this then gave way to flatter farmland and more practical looking towns. We had a pokey little flat in Montpellier but it was close to the city centre. This allowed a few strolls through the old city. I liked it as I am a city person by nature. One of the bigger cities in the south of France, it was really lively with some wonderful architecture. It had the same trams as Sydney’s east which are very large for a light rail. Montpellier’s were individually decorated and probably worked a bit better given the city’s more transport friendly topography.
The drive then took us through Nîmes, with an even more impressive Roman amphitheatre and a pleasant, largely modern, town. From there it was through the countryside again to Avignon. It was here you definitely find there are times where travelling by car is not always the most practical way of getting around in Europe. After much squeezing through very narrow streets in a very confusing old system we had to park well outside the town and trudge to our accommodation. Again, a lovely old town. It is beside the Rhône River and was once the seat of the popes before they moved to the Vatican. It had a massive old papal palace which was very impressive from the outside. Given time constraints and the rather poor reviews of the interior, we skipped that and headed for Toulon. I had wanted to see a rugby match there and managed to make it there. The south of France is rugby country. The crowd seemed to be a fair cross section of the population, not like in Sydney where there is always the whiff of North Shore toff at any rugby game. Toulon itself was pleasant. A working port but a beachfront area that looks slightly faded. The grey skies didn’t help much there. We were due to stay that night but for a range of reasons ended up doing the one and a bit hour drive back to Claviers. That was the end of a week touring another part of the southwest of this great country.
Back in France
Now a very long time since I wrote anything. We are in Claviers in the south of France. The weather is still great but the Mistral is making its presence known. It is still a lovely scene when you get out of bed and walk onto the patio every morning. It’s quiet now. We had Max here for two weeks but he was ready to continue his journey. We said goodbye again in Marseille as he caught the train to Paris. A bit of heartbreak again. Marseille itself was a lovely surprise. A very attractive city and the port area where we stayed was lovely. From there we stayed a night in Aix-En-Provence before a lovely drive through the back roads to Claviers. The longer I spend in France, the less inclined I am to leave it. I have been here quite a few times but this has been longer than usual. It always helps to be not working and staying in someone else’s nice house.
It had been a bit of a hectic arrival. The flight from Warsaw was smooth enough but confusingly we arrived at a different terminal at Nice airport which took us a while and a bit of luggage lugging before we got to the hire car office. Citroen had informed us our lease car would be late but arranged an interim hire car. We got here much later that anticipated. The next day our friends Sue and Carl arrived to stay for a couple of nights. It was lovely to catch up.
But it didn’t stop there with the arrival of friend Dave straight afterwards and then Max the following day. Then Mick and Kath dropped in on their way from Sicily and returned later on their way back to Toulon to catch the ferry to Sicily.
The worst event of the trip so far was Max getting his phone nicked. Caused enormous amounts of hassle. Apple don’t make it easy. To recover your account you need to sign in with the phone you’ve lost or at least verify a sign in with the number you don’t have access to. Despite putting the phone in lost mode it appears it was still broken into but all significant passwords had been changed by then, so it looks to have come at the loss of a few photos only and of course the expensive handset itself. Luckily no credit cards or passport was lost so that made it a bit easier. It certainly caused a great deal of stress and made us look at our own security arrangements.
The supposedly two-hour bus trip to Dubrovnik turned out to be nearly five hours. We had been warned about this by an American traveller we met on the bus to Kotor. Much of this was two-hour jam at the border crossing. Back to old memories of endless immigration posts
Dubrovnik was something of a shock. A seriously crowded tourist trap. Certainly a stunning looking city with its little lanes and streets. Definitely this was the wrong time to visit. August can be bad in Europe but post-Covid the crowds are not what they would have been in previous years. Dubrovnik is also a bit cursed by cruise ships which generate endless crowds of old farts on walking tours. Our flat in the old town was not the best either, being a bit light on facilities and not the most spacious place. It was a killer bringing our hefty luggage down the endless steps. It would have worse if we were heading up. The city soaks up the heat in the stone walls and reflects it back as the day progresses. Prices for food and drink are absolutely through the roof. Stupid. In the desire to escape this we hired a car for a couple of days and headed first to Mostar in Bosnia. The price of the first night’s accommodation was paid for by the fact it had a washing machine. We had accumulated a fair bit of washing in the previous days but a laundrette in Dubrovnik was asking sixty euros a load! Our spacious flat in Mostar was less than that. It was a really nice place too with all possible mod cons and thoughtful addons. It turns out it abutted the infamous Sniper’s Tower of Mostar and our apartment building still bore the scars of war, still pockmarked with bullet holes. It was certainly cooler than Dubrovnik and we saw rain for only the second time in six weeks. The drive back though Bosnia was lovely and that gave way to some lovely old villages in Croatia on the way back the coast. The reality is that those villages are dying as the shocking depopulation of eastern Europe – Financial Times article.
We stayed in a small town called Slano, where we swam on an uncrowded pebbly beach. Definitely worth taking the loss on accommodation and getting out a bit. I certainly look froward to other trips in eastern Europe and the Balkans. It’s been a bit of a learning experience but will make future visits much better.
The bus ride to Montenegro was grim. Hot, malfunctioning seats, heavy traffic, border delays and general disorganisation turned a six-hour trip into eight and a half hours. Kotor was lovely, however. It’s not a place I would have really known much about and the visit there was as much as anything a stopover to Dubrovnik. It has a compact but lovely old town and it is set in what is basically a fiord. A really nice place and one I would happily revisit. There is a fort up the hill which climbed despite the rather oppressive afternoon heat. A great view to be had and there was a certain satisfaction to be doing that walk nearly fifteen years after nearly having my legs destroyed in a car accident.
The flight to Albania was a smooth one and arrived at Tirana airport, picked up the car and headed out. First to Kruga Castle which was in a spectacular setting. The driving was of a standard the I would expect. Traffic is generally quite slow but there are the “gangster Mercedes” as I call them that speed by at a frantic rate and do risky overtaking manoeuvres. There are many flash Mercedes in Albania despite it being a poor country. They love the car for various reasons – Mercedes in Albania. There is a fair amount of speculation that it is a favoured destination for stolen cars given the lax registration standards in the country – In Poor Albania, Mercedes Rules Road
We stayed the first night in the city of Durres. A pleasant place on the coast. Its tourist value are the Roman amphitheatre and museum. The next stop was a drive down the coast to Fier. This was not the most attractive town but I had booked two nights there, They have some amazing Roman ruins on the outskirts of town – Apollonia. The town itself lacked quite a bit of facility. There are a huge number of bars and cafes but very limited places to eat out. We weren’t too unhappy to leave it.
After that the drive down the coast to Sarrande was lovely. Firstly, taking us high over the Llogara Pass with rugged scenery and spectacular views over the coast as we came down the other side. It was beautiful. We stayed at a lovely place in Sarrande itself that had ocean views and you could also see Corfu in the distance. Quite touristy at this time of year but mostly Albanians there for the weekend, it got quiet after that. Next, we drove inland to Gjirokaster. This was higher and slightly cooler. It has a lovely old town that was nice to walk around, and I visited one of the many bunkers that the old communist regime became obsessed with building. North Korea apparently inspired this. Then we headed back to Tirana via the lovely old town of Berat. It had a well-situated castle and a rustic old town. Tirana was quite lively and noticeably wealthier than the rest of the country. More bunkers to visit here. They have made them into quite popular attractions called Bunk D’art. One in the centre of the town was more of an art gallery – not so impressive and stifling in the heat. The second on the outskirts of town was really interesting and very big. We luckily went there quite early in the day as when we emerged there were busloads of tourists arriving. Albania was pretty cheap and relatively untouristed compared with neighbouring countries. It was a place I had always wondered about seeing I’m glad we went there. There is more to see than we saw especially some more of the more mountainous areas.
Transylvania and Greece
Again, this is a long time between instalments but since this blog probably has an audience of less than 20 on a good day at the moment that’ll be enough.
I left it last time when we had arrived in Bucharest. One of the touristy things to do there is a visit to the Parliament Buildings which loomed large in the city skyline as we looked out the back window of the flat we were occupying. Its main claim to fame is it is the world’s heaviest building. Bulk is its main virtue as there was little of style in there. Started under the dictator Ceausescu, wasn’t quite clear if it was entirely finished. Overall, a curiosity of sorts but not that memorable really.
After this it was the painful hiring of a car which had been a schmozzle from the word go. I forgot my own adage not to go cheap on this. We finally got a local car, a Dacia Duster, a sort of SUV. It had 100k kms on it but was adequate for the purpose. Despite the endless warnings of how bad Romanian drivers were, I didn’t think they were that bad, probably on a par with driving somewhere like Italy. They weren’t particularly bad tailgaters, like the French and Spanish, but overtaking is the worst bit. I drove with headlights blazing all the time. If you are a road where you see a truck approaching you needed to slow a bit and be on your guard as you knew there would be a queue of impatient drivers waiting to jump out at you. On my side I pursued a policy of driving reasonably slowly and letting the nutters past, pulling off the road if necessary. There were very few hairy moments even driving over the Transfagarsan mounting route.
Our first stop was Brasov, an old Saxon town with a lively centre. The term Saxon appears to be used all the time but should really read German for it. There had been German migration to Transylvania since the 12th Century that waxed and waned over time. In the post world war era this population declined for all manner of reasons. The population is a fraction of what it is today with many of the Romaninan Germans resettling in Germany over this time. The legacy is seen mostly in Saxon churches that followed protestant teachings and are in contrast to the Orthodox sect that is dominant in Romania. The Black Church in Brasov is one of the largest but they decorate many of the smaller historic towns that we encountered in Transylvania. We stayed in a lovely old house (or part thereof) in Brasov despite being a bit of a nightmare getting the car in and out of the yard. The obligatory visit to Bran Castle, supposedly the home of Dracula was a pain. Of course it wasn’t the real home of Vlad the Impaler but it appeared as such in Bram Stoker’s book that popularised the whole legend. I’ve never been much interested in the whole thing really and Bran Castle was a hideous tourist trap. Long queues stretched out of the place and although were able to bypass much of it by buying tickets on the phone in the queue, it was a still in the end not worth it. We visited the nearby citadel of Rasnov which was far less crowded but somewhat unspectacular. Some of these places are clearly being restored with EU money which is great but some of them are surrounded by scaffolding and have limited entry.
From Brasov we headed to another historic town, Sighisoara, which is smaller but more significant in that is the home of an old English friend, Ian. It was great to catch up and spend time in person and to meet his seven-year-old daughter, Sonia. I’ll never know how many litres of beer passed through my system in those few days but it would be higher than the trip average which in turn has been pretty high. It was great to drive out in the countryside to see towns like Biertan and a pleasant nearby city, Targu Mures. The latter was pretty devoid of tourists and the lazy way we had got by in English (which is generally widely spoken in urban and touristed areas) didn’t work so well in a place where Hungarian and Romanian were the order of the day. People were largely friendly and the confusion we had over the parking system which incurred a small fine was sorted out by an approach to the helpful local police and nearby travel agent. A pleasant town probably more Hungarian in population. Transylvania was originally part of greater Hungary and they still claim it to this day. Romania’s chop and change, stop start participation in World War one had its ups and downs but eventually gave them the opportunity to nab Transylvania is the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
From Sighisoara we had a day in Sibiu to the west which also has its share of old buildings and was abuzz with mostly Romanian tourists. Pleasant enough but the real reason for heading that way was the Tranfagarasan road over the Fagaras Mountains. It was a lovely scenic drive but fairly busy at some points. We sighted two bears on the way down. There is quite a population of bears in Romania which can cause problems at times. Bears in Romania
Thankfully our flight to Athens the next day was pretty much on time. Bucharest airport is disorganised but not particularly busy, so it was a fairly easy trip. Athens itself was fun with Jackie getting more confident with her Greek very quickly. We had a nice apartment near the Acropolis but as we had both visited it on multiple occasions previously, we thought it best not to fight the crowds and heat this time around. We visited the new Acropolis Museum which was great and bussed and walked around the city, I posted something on Facebook about the bizarre ritual of the changing of the guard outside parliament. It remains one of the strangest things I have seen. Our ferry was delayed getting to Hydra, but it was great to get here eventually. Loads of tourists but many of them Greeks. We did a round island cruise which was lovely. The swimming stops in the sea were fantastic, wonderfully clear water and beautiful temperature.
France and onward
Been somewhat slow in starting this time. Already in France a week. Starting in searing hot Paris where to one point we saw a temperature of 43 degrees. Being dry heat, it was slightly more bearable and after some of our travels in India with temperatures that stayed relentlessly 40 + for days on end we took it as it came. Lovely Airbnb on Île de la Cité that despite having no air conditioning (not common in northern Europe) we didn.t suffer badly at all. From our rear window we could see Notre Dame, which was very close to us but sadly shrouded in scaffolding as they rebuild from the disastrous fire there in 2019.
It was lovely to walk out the door and see the Seine in front. I was surprised at the size of some of the barges that sailed down. It was a lovely scene. We had no real tourist plans and were happy to stroll through the streets and people watch in restaurants in the evening. However, this being probably the 6th time in Paris, I still had never visited the Palace of Versailles. Getting there proved to be more challenging than I thought given it is one of the most visited places on the planet. The easy method would have involved a straight through train but we were informed that line was shut and we needed to take the Metro with three changes to reach the town of Versailles. The London is a bit more user friendly than the Paris variety and there was a fair wait for interconnecting trains too. When we did reach the town of Versailles there was limited signage pointing to the palace. At one point they just ran out and I had to ask a local newsagent to point the way. You have to book a time slot and we had a bit of a quick march to get there in time for ours. The place is pretty impressive. Not just its size and gardens an=but the endless artworks, sculptures and the rich historical background. You could easily justify spending two days to have good look at it but tiredness took its toll. A great place but it felt like ticking a tourist box going to see it. After three days in Paris it was time to go to Nice to see our friends.
The airport wasn’t too bad but the plane ended up being two hours late. This caused confusion with the care rental and as the company had given away our car and we were stung for an extra 150 euros to rent a flashier model. I don’t know if they were being completely honest but that’s the game they play. There is dread in my heart about travelling this August in Europe, but fingers crossed.
What a fabulous time we’ve had in Claviers with our friends the Edwards. Their hospitality has been amazing and lending us their house in September and October has made the whole trip possible. Much lovely eating and plenty of drinking has been the order of the day and all against the wonderful beauty of the countryside. It has been hot but also made bearable by large quantities of cold beer and a swimming pool.
It is strange to be collecting stamps in our passports as the we are no longer part of the EU. British passports are pretty useless these days except for getting into the UK itself. So sad to see what was once a respected nation in these parts slowly flush itself down the toilet. The election of the gormless Liz Truss seems to be a foregone conclusion so that is good in a way that the Tory government in the UK will continue to be run by a clique of twits. It will hopefully be their final downfall. We are probably a long way off doing something sensible like joining the Single Market or re-instituting freedom of movement given the gutlessness of the British left in standing up for it.
While the plane from Nice ended up taking off nearly two hours late – a feature of post Covid travel, summertime Europe and the never-ending nonsense that is Brexit – it was on the ground that we had the biggest hassle. The baggage took over an hour and a half to emerge! One of our fellow passengers kept saying how embarrassed he was to be a Romanian and groups of other passengers were berating airport staff and even the police. The upshot was that our rental car company put us down as a no-show and cancelled us. After endless phone calls we were able to sort it out and ended up not bothering to rent in while in Bucharest.
We are staying near the Old City which is lovely and chock full of bars and restaurants. There are some really gorgeous old buildings and most of our time has been wondering the streets despite the heat. We are staying in an apartment that is reasonably new but located on the top of an old communist era building that is a bit grim when you enter it. It has its eccentricities but not to worry. Things don’t always work smoothly here but not to worry.
To continue from last time, we went from Siliguri in West Bengal to Varanasi. This involved a two-stage flight, the first on AirAsia, who pissed us off greatly on our flight to Bagdroga by rigidly enforcing baggage rules. They were fine this time and the second stage of the flight from Kolkata to Varanasi was in a half empty Air India plane. All very jolly.
Varanasi was STINKING hot. In fact, the whole place was like a hot brick that barely cooled down overnight. The temperature was comfortably over 40 degrees every day we were there. The only time to really enjoy the place was at dawn or dusk. Most of the action took place at dawn and that was when it really worked its magic. I have said before, when people have tried to allude to what is really India and what is not, that there is no single place that sums it up as it is remarkably diverse. But there is something in wandering by the side of the Ganges at dawn, with the ghats and buildings clustered on the bank, that is quite enchanting. Like something out of an old history book of India, how I might have imagined the place as a kid. Travelling by row boat down the river at dawn was simply mesmerising. I had expected the place to be swamped by western tourists but they were considerably diluted by Indians. In fact, the place was not a western tourist trap at all in the way Goa or parts of Kerala are. The street scenes were not as harrowing as I might have thought. We certainly saw a number of cremations and the transport of dead bodies wrapped and carried on stretchers. But this was not as openly graphic as I might have thought. Varanasi is a very holy city for Hindus to be cremated and an even holier one in which to die.
Despite the spectacle, it was a relief in some ways to escape the place as it was essentially like being in an oven. It was dry heat rather than the oppressive humidity of Kolkata but hard enough, nonetheless. I’ve experienced this before and you just have to grin and bear it, venturing outside in small journeys and allowing time to rest up and re-hydrate in between. Overall it was quite some place. The ghats were a source of endless interest and the narrow back lanes were a fascinating labyrinth where it was very easy to get lost.
From Varanasi, it was a large jump to Amritsar. It was a disjointed two-stage flight again that involved a long layover in Delhi airport. By some fluke, we had managed to get premium economy on one leg which was pleasantly comfortable. It was impressive how the onboard staff could get all the food and drink out on such a short leg. I remembered visiting here years ago and visiting the famous Golden Temple which is an impressive religious monument. Amritsar was, on the surface, a friendlier place and, except for the day we arrived, blissfully cool. It was great on the second day when grey skies appeared and rain fell. It was a comforting feeling. I have seen hardly any rain in last year and while many would think this was a blessing, I think you need to have some balance in seasons and weather. The first place we visited was the memorial park where the 1919 massacre at Jallianwala Bagh took place. This was quite a hideous episode where an unarmed and largely peaceful crowd were fired upon by British commanded troops. The commander at the scene, General Dyer is not well looked on in history. He chose to deal with the situation without regard to the amount of bloodshed and only the structures in the area prevented the deployment of armoured cars which would have caused even more mayhem. A very unpleasant reminder of British rule, that despite apologists emphasising some of the few positive aspects, was essentially vicious and self-serving.
The Golden Temple had also seen more action in previous years when it was stormed and heavily damaged by Indian troops during the infamous Operation Blue Star in 1984 in response to its occupation by militant Sikhs. This led to rebuilding some of the temple complex which, although much of the damage was repaired by the government, there was a preference to rebuild much of the tainted area. I avoided handing in my shoes at the shoe booth, you are not allowed to wear shoes inside the temple area, by putting them in my shoulder bag. I did not close it too well which turned out to be a mistake. They were spotted by a passing pilgrim who relentlessly hassled me. I knew you couldn’t wear shoes but didn’t realise that this included not bringing them inside the temple at all. I was reported to the temple guards who duly escorted me to the shoe depository. It is an impressive complex. An adjoining museum has a gallery of pictures detailing some of the hideous and tortuous punishments meted out to and by the Sikhs over the centuries. The Sikh men in particular look quite dignified in their turbans and impressively cultivated moustaches. I’m still unclear quite how the women fit into all of this as they don’t appear to have such distinctive dress rules. They are required to cover their heads but this usually done with a chunnai scarf but women also wear turbans sometimes. There are five requirements for Sikh dress including special underpants.
Amritsar also had a network of narrow lanes that threaded through shops and workshops and this made for a fascinating walk. While the place had a generally friendly feel about it but there were few westerners about and that seemed to create more staring than usual as well as a higher number of selfie posing requests. I can tolerate a high degree of staring but sometimes it is a bit hard. For instance, occasionally a waiter in an uncrowded hotel will linger and stare at every bit of the foreigner’s eating habits, much like you’d watch an animal at the zoo. It is usually disconcerting and somewhat annoying. As for the selfies, I am amazed at how many selfies someone can actually take but it is a national pastime in India and any tourist site in the country will be surrounded by Indians pointing phones at themselves. I have to admit that the need of many people to take a picture of themselves standing next to a foreigner is a mystery to me. I guess they show them to their mates but I can’t quite see the attraction. But it is a fact of life here. I’m not sure how many pictures I appear in but I am stored in quite a number of Indian phones.
Next it was to the final leg of the two-month travel finale in India as we headed to Rajasthan. First, we flew to Jaipur which is a place I visited about ten years ago. Not that this was a long layover. We headed straight off to Ranthambore National Park the next day in the hope of going on safari and spotting a tiger. I was caught short on my research here as I thought all that was required was to turn up and all the touts, hotel staff or hawkers would duly set us up for a safari. It wasn’t that way at all. The whole business was run and controlled by the state government and was a bit of a schamozzle. You were required to book online, I discovered, and there was limited space available. I had hoped to stay a couple of nights and get a few safaris in a “gypsy” (jeep). Not so lucky. First, the hotel manager came knocking at the door of our room offering us a rather overpriced ticket on a “canter” – an 18-seater 4WD. We walked through the village armed with sticks to brandish at packs of threatening dogs, to the official ticket booth. The rudeness was quite appalling and only one or two helpful people eventually clarified what was happening. No gypsy available as they were booked ages ago. Only one safari ride available which was the following morning in a canter. We did manage to book that online, thus avoiding the 33% commission on offer at the hotel. The hotel staff were helpful in other ways but it still involved a trip down to the ticket booth at 5:30am so I could show the online booking and be allocated a vehicle. I then had to travel back to the hotel on the back of a motorbike to wait for the safari vehicle to call by and pick us up. Typical Indian red tape.
So, in the back of an 18-seater being bumped around uncomfortably we headed off. To make things more complicated, the park is divided into zones. We luckily got on the canter to Zone 6 which is a high tiger spotting area. After being bumped around for an hour and a half and seeing very few animals of any sort we stopped next to a watering hole. At this point I had given up all hope of seeing a tiger and couldn’t wait to go back to the hotel and on to Jaipur. A gypsy pulled up close by and clearly reported seeing a tiger as our driver took off at breakneck speed. While there were other vehicles present, we finally did see a tiger emerge from the undergrowth. It was an impressive beast. Beautiful, like all the big cats, and certainly the largest cat I have ever seen. It made up for some of the stress of getting to the place and on a safari.
With improved spirits but still weary from the early morning wake up we returned to the hotel and made as swift an exit as possible back to Jaipur. I had abandoned the idea of a second night at Ranthambore as there was little point, with no prospect of further animal spotting. The hotel we stayed in had a heritage style and lovely grounds with a murky swimming pool. There was a large stone wall across the road form it where, legend has it, leopards sometimes sit and wait to spot their next meal We didn’t see any, but I’ll settle for the tiger.
Back in Jaipur we limited our activity to taking another trip to see the pink city and one to the Panna Meena ka Kund, a so-called step well near the Amber Fort.
Now we are getting nearer the end of the journey. A one day lay up in Jaipur where we rested up and prepared for the next stop at Pushkar. The travelling can be a bit hard at times but it is nothing like the sort of gruelling travel I did as a young backpacker in these parts. Age and more money has seen to that.
From the south we headed to Kolkata. I first arrived in that city when I came to India in 1976. It was called Calcutta then and was entirely different place. As I’ve said before, India and the world were different places then. I remember suffering a bit from culture shock despite having been travelling in South East Asia in the previous months. I thought it was great at the time and was not disappointed after my lengthy absence. It had a bit of a different vibe to Mumbai and in many ways was rather more pleasant. The old yellow taxis gave it a Manhattan sort of feel. I was surprised to see them in such abundance. Based on the old Ambassador cars they really added to the atmosphere of the place. Interestingly they had “No Refusal” written on the side. I took this with a grain of salt and see I was probably right to do so. In theory they use the meters and although on our first ride the driver did so, all subsequent experiences were different. This included reneging on the original deal when we were already inside and setting off. I did push back against this by shouting “Stop the car and I’ll give you 20 rupees!” It worked every time and the original deal was reinstated. After this we mainly used Uber and Ola – not always easy hooking up with the ride but considerably cheaper and no hassle about the fare.
These hassles aside, the place was a treat. The sumptuous Victoria Memorial was on a Taj Mahal like scale. I barely remembered it from the first visit but it presented magnificently and was set in lovely parkland. We also loved the Indian Museum. It had some old and crumbling exhibits but the building was brilliant, this is so often the case with many of the museums in India. Often these are small with quite eclectic collections but housed in lovely buildings. The Indian Museum is on quite a different scale and a wonderful place to visit.
It must be added, that although Kolkata was fun to explore it was also hideously hot and humid. I was best able to stand up to it and spent a bit more time walking about. It was hard however keeping adequately hydrated as I became drenched in sweat. I photographed some of the lovely old buildings expecting to be shouted at by some guard. Many of the loveliest old buildings house government departments and that usually means photographing them is banned. I was chased off at one point but just carried on everywhere else as brazenly as possible, thinking that if they stopped me so what? There is an obsession about photography in India. Many things are exempt from any forms of photography. Often quite innocuous buildings or particular parts of museums. There is usually a charge added on at museums for cameras. Then sometimes you are only allowed to take photos with a mobile phone not a “proper” camera. It can be annoying and often seems arbitrary and stupid but that’s the way it is. Sometimes playing dumb or being sneaky gets you past this.
I also ventured over to the Central Market near where I had originally stayed all those years ago. I would be instantly pursued and harassed by some young lad as soon as I entered the place. They would list everything they could think of: “do you want pashminas, handicrafts, carvings…” the list would go on. Then in more hushed tones they would say: “Do you want hashish? Heroin? Morphine? Speed? Cocaine ..?” again the list would go on. Then: “You want girl?” And in even more hushed tones: “You want boy?” Anyway, the place burned down some years ago so it is unrecognisable today. So, life goes on….
I left Kolkata thinking that I had not really had as much time there as I would have wanted. It’s probably nicer at street level than the great city of Mumbai and has the reputation as a cultural and intellectual centre in India. A friend who spends quite a bit of time there on business had a few suggestions for places to eat and visit but we only got to a few of these. But there is always another time. From Kolkata we headed to Darjeeling. This involved a flight and a three-hour drive. We were finally caught having cabin baggage that was too heavy by AirAsia. It was an annoyance and cost us about $A30 (£13). They’ll probably do it again the next time we fly with them.
Darjeeling, a famous old British hill station, was far less touristy than I expected. Most of the tourists are Indians and we saw only a few Westerners. The town was hardly over developed for tourists either. What we did encounter was something we hadn’t seen for a while: rain. In fact, we got caught in a huge downpour and our flimsy umbrellas were of little protection. The lower temperature meant it was quite pleasant to walk. I had booked a ticket on the narrow gauge “toy” train that these days is pretty much a joyride. The day before they sent me a text saying it was cancelled. As the weather the next day was fine, we chanced going to the station and were rewarded with a ticket on the next train up the hill. I got covered in large coal dust but thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It brought back memories of my late father who was a huge steam train fan. He would have greatly enjoyed it.
Then it was off to Sikkim. I had always wanted to go there after I read about it as a kid. In those days it was an independent kingdom but that changed in 1975 when India decided to depose the king and take over. Sikkim’s strategic location abutting the Chinese border may have pushed India in that direction. I should probably have researched the trip a bit better and left time to get a permit to visit Lake Chengdu. As it was, we needed a special permit to visit Sikkim which was a bit of a nuisance to acquire. It involved going to two different offices where stuffy old geezers wrote details in books and issued stamped forms. In the end no border soldiers looked at it but the hotel needed to see it before you could check in. But we were blessed with the weather in Gangtok and got great views of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak after Everest and K2. It was really nice in Gangtok and the drive up there from Darjeeling was beautiful. Getting out proved a bit trickier. I hadn’t really accounted for the largest democratic exercise on earth – the elections for Lok Sabha – the Indian central parliament. This has received quite a bit of publicity in other countries. Over 900 million people eligible to vote and 15 million new voters since the last election in 2014. It is staged over about five weeks but unfortunately kicked off on the day we were planning on heading south. It appears that the advent of the election brings in all sorts of restrictions. Alcohol was not sold in the days preceding it and on the first day itself nearly all transport services were suspended. After some searching, we found a taxi driver willing to take us. After nervously waiting for the next day, he’d obviously farmed it out to a friend. We ended up with the guy in the picture. He looked about twelve years old, but was twenty, and drove like a maniac. He was a nice guy however and thankfully arrived in one piece.
I write this while sitting in a hotel room in Siliguri, a not particularly notable town but one that is a point between Gangtok and the airport at Bagdroga. Tomorrow we have a two-stage flight to Varanasi. Our time here gets shorter but as we are doing so much it all seems so long. It’s going to be quite a change. Now we go back to the great heat of the plains and away from the relative cools of the hills.
Fast forward to India again. From Kandy we had headed south. First to the Udawalawe National Park for a safari amongst the elephants, monkey and birds. It was nice but again it was a bit of a shit fight with the other armada of vehicles. Eventually these seemed to disperse and we were left to wander in relative peace around the park. The park has its problems with the conflict between foraging elephants and the farmers who live around its perimeter. There appears to be some stress on the animals themselves whose opportunities for feeding themselves appear to have diminished. Elephants are large animals who eat a lot and can be a threat to humans when their lives conflict. This has escalated in recent years in Sri Lanka with over 375 people killed by wild elephants and over 1,100 elephants killed by humans within the five years to 2018. I have seen this in Africa before. Often it is the big businesses that own safari parks not really sharing that wealth around. Therefore, subsistence farmers bear the brunt of animal incursions.
From there we went to the southern city of Galle. This gave us an opportunity to have probably one last trip to the beach which was nice. We stayed in the Fort area which was a lovely area based on the old Dutch colony. Certainly, it was a lovely spot. See the pictures here.
Sri Lanka was a pleasant place but I am not overwhelmed but a huge desire to return. I would certainly recommend it to those who find the prospect of India daunting. It is altogether a far tamer and more benign place.
So, from Sri Lanka it was back to India and a flight to Chennai followed by a three hour taxi ride to Pondicherry. I have long wanted to come here. It is the main part of the old French India. There is still some influence left here. The old colonial town, White Town, is lovely, There has clearly been some effort put into restoring the old buildings and to emphasise its Gallic past. The result is rather nice. There are some very tasteful restaurants and boutiques and overall the place is lovely. It has to get a nomination for one of the most pleasant places I have visited in India. The only downside to this seaside town is that it lacks a beach you can swim on. It has a seaside promenade but this faces a sea wall. Notices ban any thought of swimming. We visited the neighbouring new age town of Auroville which I have to say was largely underwhelming. It has a fair presence of westerners with about 40% of the resident population being non-Indian. There some photos of Pondicherry (colloquially known as Pondy) here.
The French had a presence in India for several hundred years. There were apparently a number of reasons for the French withdrawal from India. The areas under French control were disparate and tiny. Times were changing and old-style colonialism was unpopular and outmoded. France had been hammered by the Vietnamese in Indochina and had come to the realisation it wasn’t the power it was anymore. A number of European countries had tried to carve out empires in India with the Dutch being ousted by the British, who appeared to tolerate the longer-term presence of the French and Portuguese. The latter were of course duly kicked out by the Indians in 1961 as their fascist regime had clung on desperately to its colonies until the mid-1970’s. Even the Danish had a few goes but were small and often disorganised. I feel an over-reliance on Wikipedia as a source here but it provides a fairly accurate overall picture.
We needed a new power board and were pointed in the direction of a local department store called Pothys. As we made our way to the electrical section on the fifth floor we passed through a dazzling selection of sarees. They made for a very colourful two floors. Quite a stunning scene. The shopworkers seemed to think it was a bit strange that we were quite taken by it. Obviously, they see it every day. The purchase process following typical red tape laden procedures. The shop assistant comprehensively tested he power board by taking it out of the package, taking me to another desk and demonstrating that each power socket worked. Not bad customer service. He then typed up a sales invoice and directed me to the payment desk. I duly paid and had the sales invoice stamped four times in two different colours. I then had to go to another desk where another shop assistant officiously grabbed the stamped sales invoice (grabbing bureaucrats and frontline staff are another feature of Indian life), and then stapled the invoice to the plastic bag that was in front of him with the purchased power board. As soon as he had stapled the invoice, he then instantly ripped it off (leaving a hole on the side of the bag) and matched it with another shorter version receipt. He then stamped the two pieces of paper twice each with a blue stamp at dizzying speed and shoved the receipt and shopping bag at me with a look that reeked of resentment. Perhaps I was a little bemused and amused at the whole process at the same time. I was disappointed that he kept the sales invoice with the most colourful stamps on it but you can’t have everything. Red tape is a way of life here. It can be infuriating at times when you are stuck in a needless process but quite entertaining at others. I must admit I kind of preferred Pothys to David Jones or Marks and Spencer. The customer service was attentive and the colour of the place was seductive. The overstocked interior and the armies of sales staff reminded me of older times. I’m not been condescending here. I love these little things that this country throws at you. They come often in the most unexpected places and during the most trivial of tasks.
So, from here we leave the south. First to Kolkata and then even further north to Darjeeling and Gangtok. What a lovely part of India it has been. I haven’t been to Kolkata since 1976 but it was the first place I landed here and so significant as the first time I discovered India.
Well not really. It’s not quite the green and pleasant place I had wanted it to be. It’s one of those places I remember seeing on the world map in my bedroom as a kid and wondering what it might be like. Over the years I probably built a picture in my mind of lush bush surrounding a quaint old colonial town. Not really much like that. Kandy was the kingdom that for centuries successfully fought off the Portuguese and the Dutch invaders, only to finally succumb to the British in the mid-19th Century. There is certainly pleasant countryside surrounding it but it brims with stinky traffic. Not on an Indian scale mind you. Sri Lanka has been comparatively mild compared with India. There is not the dreadful polluted air and manic traffic zooming around amidst odious mounds of thoughtlessly strewn rubbish. It has been a treat to smell things here – fresh air, hints of flowers. The traffic here is said by all guidebooks to be manic and lawless. But again, compared with India it is positively tame. The roads are generally well kept with all the white lines in place and there is far, far less of the eternal rubbish that despoils beautiful India. This is meant as a statement about some of the immediate and largely superficial differences between the two countries. I could not be said to be anything but an admirer of the chaos and swarm of humanity that characterises India and have blathered on about this at some length before. But India does take it toll on the senses in many ways and a brief respite is not such a bad thing. At this point, after a short foray further north to various ruins and things, Kandy has been where I have spent the last two days. It is something of a permanent traffic jam which does greatly detract from its charm. There are glimpses of what it has been and probably can be at times as you look over the lake into the green hills behind. But sadly, it hasn’t quite matched my preconception. But I’m not going to complain as it is pleasant, nonetheless.
Colombo was an immediate contrast to previous months as the streets were well paved and the rubbish piles relatively well contained. I found it a bit souless really. Not a particularly interesting city but I don’t think it is really fair to judge places in this way. There is a lot of development going on in the old Fort area which makes for some pleasant walking but has probably diluted some of the old charm of the place.
I have probably seen enough of temples for the time being despite some of these being quite striking. We didn’t really have time to explore the ruins of Anuradhapura and learnt on that visit the first problem of temple visiting here – hot feet. The sun that beats down makes the ground so hot, walking through them impossible at times. The answer is to take a pair of socks that makes it a bit more bearable. We then went south to stay at Sigiriya, home of the famous rock fortress. Too famous as it turns out. It is a tourist cliché here and if the climb to the top in unpleasant temperatures wasn’t enough then the crowds detracted from it as an impressive site. See the photos of the crowd waiting to go up the stairway. I imagine at the right time it would be magical but we didn’t see it at its best. I tend to grin and bear the heat a bit but it does make some of the trip quite hard. The ruins at Polonnaruwa were very impressive both in their scale and the attractive setting that surrounds them. I had thought to leave a visit to them off the itinerary at one point but was rewarded for the effort. “Effort” may not be the right word. We caved into pressure and went with a car and driver here. Public transport is not the greatest and the cost of taking individual cars from place to place was pretty much the same or more than hiring our own driver for much of the time we were here. It is hardly my usual style of travel but you can get used to it. At least it is to our own timetable and itinerary. The sweat factor very much in play and the increasing oppressive heat can make sightseeing tortuous at times. But I have persisted and the sweat-dripped climb to the top of Sigiriya rock was the dedicated labour of a long-term traveller. This was even more heroic given the unexpected violent vomiting I had experienced at breakfast that morning. For some reason a glass of freshly prepared pineapple juice seemed to induce it. I brushed it aside and persevered nonetheless. It is otherwise refreshing that my battered legs and foot survived the climb with no problem. It is a great relief to me that the foot that I almost cut in two before embarking on this journey has proved to be pretty much problem free. While my reconstructed toe has no power of its own, it neatly and agreeably falls into step with the rest of my foot and causes me no bother.
So today we headed higher through the tea plantations and gorgeous green foliage interspersed with colourful flowers that are part and parcel of the tropical highlands. Another day up here and it’s off to the hotter lowlands and coast.
I’ve added some photos here. But there are more to come.
I’m sitting in a hotel room in Chennai on the eve of a flight to Sri Lanka. The journey since last writing has taken us from Kerala to the state of Tamil Nadu. The last leg of the Kerala journey was up into the hills. We stayed at a place called Munnar. It was blissfully cool and green. The area is known for its tea and the tea plantations themselves were a sight to see. The wonderful sea of green was surrounded at times by beautiful wildflowers and trees that also had uniquely coloured foliage. The contrast from place to place in this country is quite amazing. Of course, I have been to Himalayan areas and know how different they can be but the more I see of India the more I realise I have seen so little and that will probably never change.
There wasn’t an awful lot to actually see around Munnar as the wildlife park I had wanted to visit was closed as the rare nilgiri thar (a kind of goaty antelope) were having their breeding season and they didn’t want them to be upset or put off. But the scenery made up for this deficit as it was verdant and the air was the freshest we had breathed in some time. In fact, the air of south India so far seems better. We will return to the north and probably much worse air later. As I banged on about before, the air pollution is one of the worst things about being in India.
From Munnar we got a car to Madurai. This is in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Down from the Western Ghats to the drier plains. It was a beautiful drive and thankfully over fairly decent roads. The previous year there were very bad floods during the monsoon that caused quite a bit of damage, but a lot of road building had gone on and it was better than most we have experienced so far.
Of course, with the drop in altitude came the return to the heat. A drier heat than Kerala but very hot nonetheless. We were staying next to the huge Meenakshi Amman temple. It is one if the largest in India and quite imposing. We went inside but large areas are off limits to non-Hindus. We did see enough to see the extent of it and it was impressive. Madurai has been referred to as the spiritual heart of Tamil Nadu and this temple is at the centre of that. There is more of the history of it here. Out hotel was right next it and we didn’t know but the roads around it were all closed and so this necessitated a walk with luggage under the hot sun. We had to repeat this when we left. Madurai is a pleasant town and not too big, around one million, although this has probably grown since the last census in 2011. This is pretty small by Indian standards. It had some quite ridiculous traffic jams that belie its size, which is clearly an area that needs work. It was very low on western tourists as well so it was Indian breakfasts eaten in very downmarket places. Not really a problem for me and quite a refreshing change in some ways from much of the touristy areas we have visited. There was also a quite imposing palace, the Thirumalai Nayak Palace, that apparently used to be much larger. It had huge pillars and I was left wondering what it must have been like in its better days. Like most things in Madurai, the prices have not yet been jacked up to sting foreigners. These can often be quite high. Understandably they should pay a market type price in order to maintain them and that poor Indians should be able to visit them, but sometimes this is a bit steep. Foreigners are frequently made to feel they have the same status as a walking ATM in India. There is an understanding that they should pay more but sometimes it grates a bit. This is sometimes why I find myself bargaining down a tuk tuk fare by 60 cents. Unfortunately, you need to do this to an extent otherwise you will be treated with a degree of contempt. When someone is honest with me, I am happy to give a large tip.
So, we flew from Madurai to Chennai to catch the flight to Sri Lanka. This was poorly researched on my part as, when I got to the airport I realised there were direct flights from Madurai to Colombo! They are not particularly expensive either. So, I added an unnecessary flight to the trip. I didn’t need that as I have lost track of tge number of flights we have done here and airport security is a real chore. Some airlines in India perform an extra security check after you have gone through normal airport security.
From Kochi we have headed south. Kerala is a beautiful place, all lush and green. It was lovely to journey through the small roads with the coconut palms and glowing green foliage. Not entirely different from other parts of India but it feels quite a bit more tropical anyway. Certainly the heat and humidity is cranking up although that is largely due to the change of seasons. I have been in north India before around April/May and I know it gets hideously hot. That’s something to look forward to, not.
Among the many sights that is striking is Indian men often hold hands when they are walking together. This is not a sign of a same sex relationship but quite a common thing, more an expression of friendship. It is a strange thing at first but easy to get used to. It is common in many cultures around the world and was once quite common in Western societies especially in the nineteenth century. It can look a bit incongruous when you see a man in western dress holding hands with his friend wearing a short mundu (local skirt).
The mundu or its close relatives, the dhoti and lungi, are very common dress in Kerala. I’m not sure if I have an exact handle on the difference among them. It probably relates to length, style and colour. “When unbleached, the mundu is called “neriyathu”. In modern times, two types of mundu are prevalent—the single and the double. A single mundu is draped once around the waist, while the double is folded in half before draping. A mundu is usually starched before use.” Then we start on the lungi: “In Kerala the Lungi, locally known as Kaili or Kalli Mundu, is worn by both men and women. It is considered a casual dress or working dress of labourers. Most men in Kerala use lungi as home dress or sleep dress. Lungis are generally colourful, and with varying designs. Lungis are not used during occasions such as weddings or other religious ceremonies.” Thank you Wikipedia for that info, further reading is here. I’m still confused personally but suffice to say that blokes in this part of the world wear skirts and seem to prefer it to western trousers most of the time. This is not surprising considering it is stinking hot. I don’t think I’ll be making the switch just yet.
Indians in the sea are an ongoing source of fascination to me. I think I have written about this before. As an Australasian, I have a distinct relationship with the sea. I love to swim in it, preferably playing in the waves. That is in my DNA, from childhood that was our beach culture. Swimming was regarded as a life skill that everyone should learn. It was funny to see Europeans in Goa lazing endlessly on their beach lounges just looking at the sea. They only occasionally venture into the sea and only when it’s not too “rough”. That is when there are waves of any sort. I struggle to spend hours at the beach as much as I love it. But it is nice to enjoy the sea. Indians on the other hand are a different bunch again. Many of them can’t swim of course and to see them in places like Goa and Kerala as visitors borders on the comical. Beachwear is pretty much unknown to them so they frolic in the shallows in their clothes. I loved to show off in the sea by catching wave while bodysurfing which is often met with gawping stares by wading Indians. Also at the pool in our apartments I would jump in and do a four lap medley again to gawping stares.
Kerala has had Communist Party led governments on and off since the 1950’s. They are certainly influenced by these ideas but function mostly as a reformist, democratic socialist style government. The flags with hammers and sickles can be seen in many places and there are some more festive and stylistic interpretations to be found on the walls in some villages. The history is rather convoluted with various factions and splits of the Indian Communist Party forming coalition fronts with other left wing parties to form governments over the years. Either way, Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India, 95% vs 74% for the country as a whole. Overall, Kerala scores relatively high on the Human Development Index compared with many other states in India and other countries. The reasons are mixed and debatable. Left leaning governments have focused on healthcare, education, women’s rights, basic infrastructure and sanitation with consequent positive results. But Kerala appears to have strong grassroots organisations that are active and successful. Many Keralans have benefited from working in the Gulf however their success there can also be attributed to higher standards of education.
Kerala is a lovely part of India for a variety of reasons but it has an interesting political history and has achieved some success in human development that outstrips much of the rest of the Indian subcontinent.
The first stop past Goa was Bangalore or Bengaluru which is now its correct name. It comes from the local Kannada language Benda-kaal-uru. It means essentially “place of the boiled beans”. There is a legend behind it but that is open to some debate. Follow that link if you want to delve deeper. It was surprisingly green and pleasant. The tree lined streets were not what I was expecting. It doesn’t seem as big as it is, at 12.3 million people it’s not very large by Indian standards but hardly small. It is one of the main centres of Indian IT so that should probably make it one of the centres of world IT. Not that I really saw much evidence of that. I had booked a stopover here for a couple of days with the thought of just having a look at the city itself but that was, in hindsight, a bit of a mistake. The neighbouring places of Mysore (Mysuru) and Ooty are attractive destinations in themselves. I knew we were not really going to make it to Ooty but only realised later how attractive the sights were in Mysuru. It is a pleasant place itself and has a famous palace. In the end we made a one-day trip there by hiring a taxi which included a stop off at a place called Srirangapatna, which is home to another old palace that was rather fascinating. I have included some pictures of it under the Mysore tab. It was about 150km to Mysore from Bangalore, a 300km round trip. That is quite long by Indian standards as roads are usually in poor condition and clogged. This road was better than usual but still was a bit of a slog. I was a victim of my own poor planning. It was worth the journey anyway but I left both places feeling I hadn’t really done them justice. Not to worry, we still saw quite a bit during our stay.
In the background of this has been the latest dust up between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. This was triggered by a hideous loss of life (more that 40) in a suicide bombing of an Indian army convoy by a terrorist group in Pulwama, Kashmir in February. This led to an Indian incursion into Pakistani territory to bomb a supposed terrorist training camp, an Indian plane getting shot down followed by the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, handing the surviving captured pilot back to India in a gesture of supposed goodwill. Pakistan has been fairly conciliatory but the sabre rattling on the Indian side has been louder. This is not least because Indian elections are due soon and the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his BJP party are in danger of losing their parliamentary majority. This whole episode brings a largely welcome distraction from India’s inconvenient problems such as rising unemployment. These incidents can be a gift to incumbent politicians everywhere who are under pressure. I expect this to blow over but we are keeping travel plans up north to a minimum and seeing how it all goes.
From Bangalore we flew to Kochi (previously known as Cochin). These new names for places are seemingly used interchangeably. I haven’t met any Indians yet who feel particularly strongly about it. Bombay is still frequently used in Mumbai. It is largely the same with Bangalore and Mysore. These were essentially Anglicised names that have been officially dumped as an unwelcome vestige of imperialism. I’ve yet to hear anyone call Chennai by its old name of Madras but I haven’t been there yet so I’ll wait and see.
Kochi, at least the area of Fort Kochi is lovely. Pleasantly laid back and not overwhelmed with tourists. The places to eat and stay are largely decked out more tastefully than Goa, where the evidence of its Indo-Portuguese character has largely been wiped away by rapid development. There are a greater range of nationalities among the tourists with a more noticeable presence of French, Australians and even Americans. Although not the worst of your loud Yankee tourists by any means. One great advantage of this is the greater availability of halfway decent coffee.
I finally made good on my threat to hire a Royal Enfield motorbike for a day and rode out west of the city. The roads were a bit less clogged than Goa and not quite as infested with speed humps or speed breakers as they are called here. These are frequently not marked and take you by surprise and leading to hitting the breaks hard or being uncomfortably tossed in the air and threatening to break the suspension. Annoying as these are, they are really necessary because there would be terrible mayhem without them. There are few road rules here and stupid behaviour is common but it has some logic to it with an underlying code of practice. It is possible to ride here fairly comfortably as traffic is generally pretty slow. Even on the old Royal Enfield I barely got above 60kph. There are just too many daft drivers and other obstacles like stray cows, dogs and pedestrians who don’t mind walking three abreast and getting in the way of passing traffic.
This state, Kerala, currently has a communist led government and I have yet to investigate what changes they have brought here. There are numerous slogans and murals on walls concentrating on social issues and warnings about the dangers of drugs. The red flags with white hammer and sickle emblems fly in many places.
Now the plan is to head south through Kerala and then back north across to Madurai and Chennai before a side trip to Sri Lanka.